What is the Lisbon Treaty?: Lisbon explained: part 1

Mon, May 12, 2008, 01:00

In the first article in a new series, the issues surrounding the Lisbon Treaty, due to be voted on in the upcoming referendum, are explained.

IT TOOK six years of tough negotiations for EU states to agree how to reform the union. The final phase of this journey saw the Lisbon Treaty signed by all 27 EU heads of state at the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon last December.

"This is not a treaty for the past. This is a treaty for the future, a treaty that will make Europe more modern, more efficient and more democratic," said Portuguese prime minister José Sócrates, who helped to steer a final compromise between Europe's leaders on the 200-plus page text during his country's six-month presidency of the union.

For long-serving EU leaders such as Bertie Ahern and Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Junker, the signing ceremony must have brought back memories of Rome's Capitolino museum, which hosted the similarly grandiose signing of the EU constitution in October 2004.

Just nine months later the French and Dutch voters in referendums voted it down, consigning it to oblivion. This triggered an 18-month period of reflection until EU leaders finally began to craft the Lisbon Treaty, which they agreed should follow closely the outline of the rejected draft constitution.

EU leaders argue the treaty is necessary to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the union's institutions and decision-making mechanisms, which they say are showing the strain as the EU enlarges. By updating the union's internal structures it will be better able to face global challenges such as climate change, energy security and immigration.

But treaty sceptics claim the reform is not needed and that Lisbon represents an unprecedented centralisation of power in Brussels. Others say the reform does not go far enough and the EU remains unaccountable to the public.

One of the key criticisms of Lisbon, which will face a public vote only in Ireland, is that the treaty is simply the EU constitution by a different name. Bertie Ahern clearly had this in mind when he agreed with reporters after the summit that "90 per cent of the content" of Lisbon was the same as the EU constitution. The key architect of the constitution, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, also declared that his "earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way".

In Britain, however, Gordon Brown was adamant that Lisbon was no constitution and his foreign minister David Miliband declared the EU constitution to be "dead". They emphasised the different structure of Lisbon and several key amendments that were made to the finely-balanced institutional package in the constitution designed to reform the EU.

The political subtext to the "constitution versus treaty" debate in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Denmark was that passing a constitution would almost certainly require a referendum (which might be rejected), whereas a treaty could be ratified in parliaments.

Under German chancellor Angela Merkel's presidency of the EU during the first six months of 2007, EU leaders agreed to rework the EU constitution into a treaty, which retained the substance of Giscard d'Estaing's proposed reforms.

The biggest change to the text was the decision to make Lisbon an amending treaty rather than a single document that would bring all existing treaties together in a manner resembling a constitution. This means Lisbon makes changes to the existing Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community - the two basic EU treaties.

Lisbon also removed the official status conferred by the draft constitution on EU symbols that may have provided the union with a sense of statehood. This meant removing mention of the EU flag, anthem (Beethoven's Ode to Joy) and its motto "united in diversity" from the new treaty text.

The core reforms to the decision-making mechanisms and institutions proposed in the draft constitution were retained. These include: the creation of a president of the European Council; revamping the voting system at the Council of Ministers; reducing the number of commissioners at the EU executive; removing national vetos from about 60 legislative areas; and extending scrutiny of these laws to the European Parliament.

The only major changes directly affecting Ireland from the renegotiated Lisbon text was that the Government decided to retain its ability to "opt in" or "opt out" of legislative proposals in the sensitive justice field.

It also decided not to attach itself to a British and Polish "opt out" from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a Bill of rights given legal status under Lisbon.

Unquestionably, one of the big drawbacks created by the decision to draft Lisbon in the form of an amending treaty rather than a single readable text such as the EU constitution was that, like most domestic amending legislation, it is difficult to read. Its articles can be properly assessed only by relating the amendments in the Lisbon Treaty to the consolidated text of the EU treaties.

Both texts are available on the web and the Referendum Commission is producing information at www.lisbontreaty2008.ie. But a complex and, some say, "ugly treaty" is a hard sell.

Opinion on the scope of the changes proposed by Lisbon is divided between those who argue it would simply reform the EU to enable it to act more effectively and others who say it represents fundamental change that could herald a path towards a federal Europe.

Critics of Lisbon say, with some validity, that it so closely resembles the rejected EU constitution in content that it must represent a major leap forward in EU integration.

But this is to overstate the nature of the EU constitution in the first place - in truth it was only given the title of "constitution" because of the misguided vanity of Giscard d'Estaing.

Essentially, lifting national vetos over more legislative areas, boosting the role of the European Parliament and amending the voting system at the Council of Ministers represent reforms very much in the tradition of previous limited EU treaty revisions. There are few big new ideas in Lisbon, and certainly none of the nature of the euro currency that emerged from Maastricht or the single market in the Single European Act.

The EU will extend its competence to the areas of sport, intellectual property, space, civil protection and administration. Arguably, the most significant change will be the appointment of a president of the European Council which could, over time, or in the hands of a strong personality, become a powerful post.

The reduction in size of the commission, which would result in EU states being able to nominate a commissioner two-thirds of the time, could also be a significant change.

But overall Lisbon remains a moderate amending treaty that will not transform the EU into a superstate or fatally undermine Irish sovereignty.

TOMORROW: Does the treaty express new values or principles?